What are a Number of Characteristics of Expert Post-Secondary Students?

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


One of the key questions with respect to Expert Learning is: what are the characteristics of the Expert Learner?  In response to this question, one can find a virtual cornucopia of research studies, textbooks and popular articles on the internet. This article endeavors to provide an overall summary of twelve strategies from the academic literature with respect to expert learners. It should be noted that while the short list below is by no means exhaustive, the below items endeavor to provide an overall introductory summary of learning expertise.

[1] Take Your time

The quick advice here is to not rush into tasks with respect assignments. The same applies in test situations in which (again) it is advised not to rush too quickly into answering questions during test situations. A number of studies have found that novice students have a tendency to literally “jump in” with respect to reading textbooks, term papers and/or preparation for class presentations. Experts however first engage in careful planning by first making sure that they understand the task demands of their activity. For example, if there is a chapter to be read, the student would browse through the chapter to get a sense of its topics and even see if there is a summary section at the end of that chapter. This greatly helps in “getting the gist” of the topics makes reading the chapter more productive, leading to higher learning and memory for the chapter’s topics.

With tasks, students are advised to first ensure that they understand what specific tasks (or goals) the assignment is demanding. Are the objectives clear? If not, then it is recommended that the student refer to their course syllabus and even consult their instructor during their office hours. This is a much more effective strategy than simply “jumping in” without having clearly outlined the task objectives first.

In exam situations students are advised to first read each question patiently and carefully first, and to resist the temptation to rush to answer it. In multiple choice tests this entails first reading the question with an eye to getting the “gist” of the question (the key points/words) and then to look at each option and seeing how this best answers the question. Too often many students in multiple choice exams find it convenient to jump into the answers without having adequately assessed the question first. Like multiple choice questions, students doing essay questions are advised to carefully read the question first to understand their objective. Then, before rushing to write the answer, to first think of their thesis (what they will discuss) and then proceed to write.

[2] Transfer of Learning: using Metaphors

Transfer of Learning is where you can use a piece of past learning or understanding to help you learn something new. Metaphors are perhaps the most effective of transfer strategies.

One example is the case of learning the concept of integration in calculus. The student could draw a parallel with how the slices of the a loaf of bread can be assembled into a loaf of bread (with each slice literally “integrated” into the loaf).

[3] Textbook reading: See relationship of “Big Picture” and Details

This is the case of “seeing the forest through the trees”. Put simply this is the ability “zoom out” to look at the “big picture” and see how the details fit into that “big picture”.

This is most effective in textbook reading where the learner is advised to get the “big picture” by looking at the summary section of a chapter to first quickly get the main points. Then as the learner reads the chapter s/he can see how the details now fit into the framework of the “big picture” of the chapter being read. For the specifics of the textbook reading strategies consult the following handout: Four step Reading Strategy for Textbooks (pdf)

[4] Chunking and Organizing Information

Chunking is the process of taking a big item and breaking it down into smaller and more manageable parts. This is especially effective when there is a a lot of information to learn from your notes and readings. Chunking helps you to Organize your information. However Organization of information chunks needs to be done in a logical and meaningful way – it needs to “make sense”.

This then helps you to both learn the information much more effectively and to recall this more effectively for exams. While there are several ways of organizing information, two techniques are often used. The first is to “group” or “cluster” the information in a meaningful way. A related approach is to look for overall patterns in the information chunks – this uses the “Big Picture” technique discussed in [3].

[5] Willingness to Expand and use Multiple Approaches to enhance Learning

One of the aspects of this is the willingness to use different ways of thinking and learning. One example of this type of thinking is Gardner’s approach to multiple intelligence(s). In this approach intelligence is viewed as multi-faceted, with us being able to utilize not just approaches we are used to, but to also use approaches not used previously:

  • Linguistic Intelligence: this relates to one’s ability to read, write and communicate with words.
  • Logical-mathematical Intelligence: this pertains to reason, calculate and use logic.
  • Visual-Spatial Intelligence: thinking in pictures, visualizing, and sense of direction and space.
  • Musical Intelligence: this is one’s “sense of music” such as the ability to keep rhythm, appreciate, compose, and make music.
  • Kinesthetic Intelligence: This is intelligence of the “Body” pertaining to one’s ability to create physical products, present ideas and emotions, and to use one’s body to solve problems.
  • Interpersonal Intelligence: A more “Social” type of intelligence that pertains how one relates to people, feels and shows empathy and understanding, and notices and respects their goals and motivations.
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence: This is a more “within” type of intelligence, which relates one’s willingness to engage in self-assessment, self-analysis, reflection, making future plans, and setting goals (short-term and long-term).

A key aspect of this approach entails the belief that intelligence(s) such as the above can be improved with practice, strategy and perseverance which in turn enhances performance in tasks (see Growth Mind-Set [9] below).

[6] Constant Self-Testing

Self-Testing has been reported as the single most effective technique for memory and recall in exams. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of practice tests done outside of class (as part of one’s study session) (Dunlovsky et al., 2015, p.43). Flash cards have been found to be effective as well, especially for the recall of definitions and terms.

Practice tests work across a wide range of content, formats, age groups and even retention intervals. The technique has been adapted by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.) of the Langara College Counselling Department by combining self-testing with a timer. This is now a timed self-test in which the student engages in Quick/Short, Timed Quizzes (without of course looking at one’s textbook, notes, etc.). For the specifics of the “Timed Self-Testing” technique consult the following handout: Timed Self Testing (pdf)

[7] Deep Learning versus Superficial Learning

Deep Learning is the approach of learning for meaning rather Superficial Learning which often entails cramming and rote memorizing just to pass tests. Key to Deep learning is the use of “What”, “Why” and “How” questions to learn new concepts. The key to Deep Learning is to aim for critical understanding for long-term retention, beyond just the classroom or course. A critical component of this process is the “Joy of Learning” which also pertains to the Growth Mind-Set – see [9].

[8] Distributing Learning for Success

A highly effective learning strategy is to distribute your studying. This is the opposite of cramming or “mass studying” in a short timeframe for exams. Studies have consistently shown that the “Distribution of Learning” or the spreading out of your learning over a longer period of time results in enhanced performance. The same strategy of Distribution across time is more effective with respect to writing papers, preparing for presentations, projects, etc. For more see the following video [result of collaboration between the Counselling Department (content provided by Kaveh Farrokh) and Daryl Smith (Intercultural Initiatives Coordinator, Teaching & Curriculum Development), Teresa Brooks (Manager, International Student Services) and Allison Smith who designed the actual Moovlie below]:

[9] Motivation: Having a Growth Mindset

The Growth Mind-Set is the preference for concentrating on improving one’s performance by focusing on improving their Learning Process. Persons with the Growth Mind-Set believe that their abilities or “IQ” can be improved by effort, perseverance and the application of Effective Strategies.

For more on this topic see:

Focus on Your “Learning Process” rather than Your “Ability” to be Successful

[10] The Importance of Sleep

Sleep has been found to be critical for not only school success, but also mental well-being and health. While the negative impacts of impaired sleep on physical health have been known for several years, several studies have shown that disrupted (and lack of) sleep disrupt learning and memory. Even 1-2 nights of disrupted sleep result in the deterioration of synaptic performance in the brain, which translates into impaired learning and also impaired recall for exam situations. More recent studies have shown that impaired sleep also impacts the brain by elevating negative thoughts as well as anxiety. Poor time management and “cramming” often result in impaired (or even lack of) sleep which is maladaptive for school learning as well as mental health. For more on this topic see:

Your Sleep and Your Brain Health

[11] Exercise: Good for the Brain

Exercise has strong benefits with respect to the brain performance in learning and also with mental health. With the boosting of the brain’s dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters, learning and memory performance are enhanced.

Exercise also greatly improves attention, decision making, and planning– with all of these enhancements also helping to reduce stress. With respect to mental health, recent research has found that exercise has a notable impact with respect to reducing anxiety. As exercise reduces Cortisol (the stress hormone) this then results in the reduction of fear as well as depression type symptoms. For more on this topic see:

Your Mind Benefits from Physical Exercise throughout Your Lifespan

[12] Diet and its impact on Learning and Mood

Recent studies have discovered a link between depressed moods and the high consumption of typically Western-type junk foods. It has also been found that reduction of junk foods along with the adoption of healthier eating habits (notably traditional Mediterranean diets) helped (along with Cognitive-based therapy) to wards significantly improved mental health.

Another related series of findings have found that elevated long-term consumption of junk foods can damage the hippocampus which is a critical segment of the limbic system involved in the construction of memories. For more on this topic see:

Your Diet and Your Brain Health


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